Restoration: A Medieval Understanding of ‘Science’

Oxford High street

 Title image by Lizzie Daly

By Sea Yun Pius Joung

As one enters the quadrangle of our beloved Bodleian, one can’t help but notice the grandeur of it allthe ancient windows; the scent of old books; the archways leading into mysterious rooms such as the schola moralis philosophiae, the schola astronomiae et rhetoricae, or the schola musicaeand at the centre of it all, the grand archway leading into the Divinity Schools.

The architecture of the Bodleian itself speaks of the fundamental understanding of the medieval worldviewthat Theology is the regina scientiarum (queen of the sciences), because its subject matter is God, through Whom the very plain of existence came to exist. As the Mathematician John Lennox succinctly puts it, “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”

Such a conviction is what prompts the University’s motto, Dominus illuminatio meathe Lord is my Light (Ps 27:1). As the theologian Ivan Illich put it, this motto is “suffused by the idea that the world rests in God’s hands, that it is contingent on Him. This means that at every instant everything derives its existence from his continued creative act. Things radiate by virtue of their constant dependence on this creative act. They are alight by the God-derived luminescence of their truth.”

Despite the secular attempt to root out the sacred shadows lurking behind ‘science’, and the general indifference towards the questions concerning the medieval theologians, understanding the history of the development of Science is vital to understanding the purpose (τελος) towards which it is directed, and the assumptions that ground and frame our conception of truth.

In the following article, I will explore the history of the word ‘science’, how it was used in the ancient and medieval world, and offer some suggestions for what restoring the spirit of the medieval sciences might look like.

A Brief European History of “Scientia“: An Editorial of what the Medieval Understanding of Science can provide for the modern world

The conception of ‘Science’ in antiquity can be summed up by the Aristotelian worldview as a coherent system derived from first principles that can produce propositions of sorts.

The Latin scientia is derived from the Latin verb scio (‘I know; understand’), and thus has connotations that do not equate directly to the English word ‘science’. For the ancient, scientific knowledge was not dependent on the empirical reliance on sense perception nor upon the scientific method.

It is in this context that Aquinas states that ‘Sacred Doctrine is a science. […] For it proceeds from first principles known by the light of a higher science, viz., the science had by God and the blessed in heaven. So just as music takes on faith the principles handed down to it by arithmetic, so too sacred doctrine takes on faith the principles revealed to it by God’ (Summa Theologiae, I.I.2).

Theology or ‘Sacra Doctrina’ is a science because it proceeds from first principles set forth from God, which are the so-called articles of faith, which have been revealed through the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church.

Furthermore, for Aquinas, Theology is the noblest of the sciences, because ‘sacred doctrine has its certitude from the light of God’s knowledge, which cannot be deceived’; ‘this science is principally about things that transcend reason in their loftiness, whereas the other sciences consider only those things that fall under reason’; and ‘the end of sacred doctrine as a practical science is eternal beatitude, and this is the ultimate end to which all the other ends of the practical sciences are ordered’ (I.I.5).

Although Aquinas falls short of actually labelling theology regina scientiarum, for all intents and purposes, he considers it such, and looms over the other sciences as the judge of their direction.

Thus, in the medieval university, Brink explains that “the goal of academic study was not to specialise in some discipline, but to enhance one’s personal formation in a deeply spiritual context. Even the study of nature was directed at such spiritual formation, shaping one’s mind so as to have it contemplate the divine beauty” (445).

Theology once represented the well-ordered direction of the University as a whole, both in individual formation and in the direction of the faculties upon an holistic, unitive view of the whole system.

The Natural Sciences developed in this foundation, and thus they were forged within a religious context.

As much as our textbooks seek to show that Copernicus and Galileo were heralds and forerunners to an age of reason alone, the reality is that they were steeped in the religious milieu and assumptions about the Divine underpinned the direction of their study, formation, and research. Mendel, the father of genetics was an Augustinian canon. Copernicus was a canon lawyer and at least took minor orders.

Far from an hostility towards the Church, their understanding of science was directed at an ends, and Theology provided the direction of their studies and stood as the judge of their presuppositions.

One might very easily ask what the purpose of going through all this history was, given that we live in a modern, 21st century world. Couldn’t we simply use ‘science’ as we always have been as denoting the natural sciences and the faculties that use the scientific method?

At one level, as we have learnt from several of the most current political issues, it is inevitable that words have both an afterlife and an history that grounds their meaning. As such, it is almost impossible to divorce ‘science’ from its historical context.

Furthermore, it seems hardly desirable for the natural sciences to be divorced from the arts at any rate. It is difficult to imagine ‘science’ being done with any seriousness without the fundamental assumption that our internal faculties align with the external world. It is difficult to conceive of science without faith as a way of knowing, along with intuition, language, and imagination.

The cry of Reason Alone has long been shown to be an empty one, and all of the science need fundamental assumptions—often called ‘axioms’ through which they are grounded. There is still room for metaphysics.

As Brink once noted, “all intellectual enquiry is necessarily informed by an underlying account of the nature and goal of the intellectual life. Remarkably, however, the university does not teach us anything about why the pursuit of intellectual goals is indeed valuable” (452).

As Fr Julian Large of the London Oratory recently wrote, “Intriguing and persuasive as it may be, the Big Bang remains a theory. A scientific consensus only holds sway for as long as it remains unchallenged by a more compelling explanation”.

There is no question that the Big Bang theory remains the most elegant and most persuasive scientific explanation for how the universe came into existencebut it leaves so many important questions unanswered.

The difficulty that faces most scientists today is that there is an inadequate emphasis of the ends to which their discipline is directedthe questions of why their science matterswhere their discipline fits in the larger picturefrom what their assumptions and fundamental first principles, including their methodologies are derivedand what is to be valued in a society aimed at human flourishing.

Restoring these questions to the University is of crucial importance for the future generations of our scientists. As the Oriel Theologian John Henry Newman once wrote, “In a word, Religious Truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of University Teaching.”

Perhaps it is time for the University to restore Theology to her rightful throne of knowledgeand for all scientists to ask the big questions within their university yearsfor all of the young people to ponder them and seek answers to them, rather than merely being content with lab experiments, reports, and lectures on the most minute and technical matters.